The outbreak of a new respiratory disease, which started in the Chinese city of Wuhan earlier this month, has put a number of cities in China on lockdown and has international governments issuing warnings against all but essential travel to the country. Like SARS and MERS, this new type of coronavirus is spreading quickly via international air travel, with cases already reaching Japan, Thailand, Korea, the United States, Canada, Germany, France and more – with more certain to come.

An airport staff holds health advisory cards for passengers at Changi International airport in Singapore.
Authorities are scrambling to contain the disease during the Lunar New Year travel season. Image: Roslan Rahman/AFP/Getty

The United States’ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (known as the CDC) is advising travellers to avoid all nonessential travel to China. The US State Department has also issued a warning to avoid all nonessential travel to China, as Chinese authorities are imposing quarantines and restricting travel throughout the country.

The UK's Foreign Office has advised against all but essential travel to China and against all travel to Wuhan. Citizens from around the world are being evacuated from Wuhan by their governments, with the expectation they will remain in quarantine when they arrive in their home countries. 

Chinese authorities, meanwhile, have restricted the movement of millions of people amid Lunar New Year celebrations. The World Health Organization (WHO) described the outbreak as an emergency in China and numerous cities have been closed off in the Hubei province, where Wuhan is located, to contain the disease. On Thursday, WHO is meeting to determine whether the current outbreak constitutes a global health emergency. 

Travelers wearing face masks and pushing suitcases walk through the check-in hall at the Hong Kong International Airport in Hong Kong.
 China has started a nationwide screening to tackle the growing outbreak of a new respiratory virus, with hundreds of millions set to travel during the looming Lunar New Year holiday. Image:  Qilai Shen/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Many airports around the world are running additional passenger screenings in an effort to stop the transmission of the virus through travel. If you're travelling, expect airlines to make announcements about the illness, and to exhort anyone who feels ill to contact them. Flying when sick is a bad idea as a general rule, and airlines always have the right to refuse carriage to an ill passenger.

Don’t travel to – or through – Wuhan

The city and its province of Hubei are currently under lockdown. Tourist sites outside Hubei such as Shanghai's Disney Resort, the Forbidden City in Beijing and a section of the Great Wall have also been temporarily closed down.  Airlines have cancelled hundreds of flights into and out of Wuhan. For example, British Airways has cancelled all flights to and from mainland China following the British government's travel advisory. In China, some public transport services like buses, ferries and trains have been shut down. 

Health officers screen arriving passengers from China with thermal scanners at Changi International airport in Singapore.
Health officers screen arriving passengers from China with thermal scanners at Changi International airport in Singapore. Image: Roslan Rahman/AFP via Getty Images

Many airlines, such as American Airlines at Delta, are proactively waiving the fees for changing flights through China until the end of February. If you had plans to travel through China, check with your relevant airline or travel insurance company for more information. 

So what’s a coronavirus?

Coronaviruses are a family of viruses that include the common cold, SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) and MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome). What the experts are saying at the moment is that this new Wuhan coronavirus is transmitted in much the same way as the common cold. While a cold is rarely anything more than an inconvenience, the newer types of coronaviruses can be a bit more problematic.

Travelers wearing face masks and pushing suitcases walk through the check-in hall at the Hong Kong International Airport in Hong Kong, China.
Travellers are wearing face masks to protect themselves from possible infection at Hong Kong International Airport. Image: May James/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The reality is that the experts say that the precautions you take against getting a cold or the flu when travelling should also be effective in combating this new kind of disease.

The World Health Organization is continuing to provide updates on how people can protect themselves against the virus. 

Take sensible precautions when travelling, wherever you are

This is not the first outbreak of a new coronavirus and it won’t be the last. I’m no doctor, but as a regular traveller, I take common-sense precautions and have developed sensible habits to avoid getting sick.

Stay away from ill people, and if you get anything more than a mild cold and have been travelling or exposed to large groups of people (in a major world city, say) perhaps go to your doctor – but definitely call first, especially if you have recently been to areas known to have been infected because there are special procedures to quarantine people at higher risk.

If someone’s coughing and spluttering all over the plane close enough that you can hear them, alert the crew and ask to be reseated. (Note that this may well mean that the person is quizzed about their travel history and that your flight may be delayed for medical authorities to check them out, so be judicious and thoughtful about how you go about it.)

I’m pretty religious about washing my hands (and, in between, using alcohol gels) when I travel, especially on public transport. I’d consider wearing a mask on public transport and when flying as well, and perhaps bring a little packet of disinfectant handwipes to wipe down the areas you might touch on a plane.

It’s smart to avoid touching your face during and after using public transport, bathrooms – really, after touching things that other people have touched.  Since early suggestions are that the virus might have spread via a wet market (the sort of place where live animals and raw meat, seafood and other items are sold in the open), the US State Department is advising anyone in China to "avoid animals (alive or dead), animal markets, and products that come from animals (such as uncooked meat)". 

This article was first published on 22 January, 2020 and updated on 30 January.

Read more: 

Tips to keep your family healthy on the road

9 apps to keep you healthy when travelling

Airline staff share their tips on keeping healthy when travelling

This article was first published Jan 22, 2020 and updated Jan 30, 2020.

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